The Duke Vespers Ensemble, alongside the Mallarmé Chamber Players and the Washington Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, performed an excellent program that brought to life the sacred music of 17th century Rome. Called, “Viva Italia,” the concert program contrasted the earlier and more conservative compositions of the Sistine Chapel with music of the Collegio Germanico, where composers such as Tomás Luis de Victoria broadened the styles of music in worship. The crux of this transition from old to new occurred most prominently at the end of the 1500s, as explained by conductor Brian A. Schmidt. Therefore, the inclusion of a multitude of styles and sacred genres made the concert educational as well as beautiful.

The plainchant “Deus in djutorium meum intende,” traditionally used to begin the Compline service, served as an introduction to Charpentier’s Dixit Dominus. Charpentier studied at the Collegio Germanico, so this composition reflects the growing trend of incorporating instruments with voices – this piece begins with slow and solemn chords played by the strings. The introduction led to three soloists: countertenor Doug Dodson, tenor Bill Bruley, and bass Matthew Curran. Along with the organ’s foundation and the homophonic chorus and instruments, these three voices soared above the texture magnificently. Since the concert took place in the vaulted and lofty Duke Chapel, the musicians had no problem with blending among themselves. The acoustics in the chapel are so live and resonant that at times the music seemed almost ethereal; even though the musicians were located in front of the audience, the sound seemed to come from all around the chapel.

Next, the ensembles performed several pieces by Tomás Luis de Victoria: “Ave Regina Caelorum” and “Salve Regina.” Although Victoria served as the choirmaster of the Collegio Germanico for some time, “Salve Regina” is contrastingly more conservative than what Victoria is known for. The former employed all of the instruments present, building from the beginning to form a rich and complex texture. The latter, sung a capella with organ continuo, was less about grandeur and more about the subtle intertwining of each melody. However, in both of these pieces, the resolutions of cadences were quite similar, ending with resonance through effective suspension and resolution.

To close the first half of the concert, the musicians brought life to the little-known composer Giovanni Felice Sances and his Missa Sancta Maria Magdalenae. This work in particular is so rarely performed that this performance was only its second in the United States. Written around 1665, this mass exemplifies the trend of grand scoring that became increasingly popular for worship. Most of the mass movements began with a solo plainchant performed by the aforementioned soloists as well as sopranos Laura Dawalt and Julianna Emanski, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Johnson Knight, and tenor Nathan Hodgson. These soloists were excellent additions to the sound of the ensemble. With this mass, the audience experienced the grandeur of a large-scale mass, especially in movements such as the Gloria, where trumpet fanfare was frequent. In the Sanctus, phrases of the text were traded both between soloists and the chorus, showing an interesting contrast between the blend of one voice and many voices. Fascinatingly, the blend and resonance of the chorus was so magnificent that often the chorus sounded more like a singular voice.

Soprano soloists Dawalt and Emanski were featured in another composition of Sances, this time his sacred motet “Ave Maris Stella.” This type of piece is significant due to its inclusion of a ground bass, a style relatively new at the time of composition. Over this repeating bass line, the soloists both exchanged polyphonic phrases and beautifully sung harmonic intervals. To close the concert, all the musicians came together to perform Tomás Luis de Victoria’s spectacular “Regina Caeli.” This was a perfect choice to end the program, since it ended with gloriously joyful repetitions of the word “alleluia” in grand cadences. 

The program will be given again in Raleigh on April 19 at 5:00 p.m., in Christ Church. For details, see the sidebar.


Duke Chapel has posted the concert recording on SoundCloud for one week.